Murray Waas reports on the website of the Atlantic that Alberto Gonzales is now telling investigators that he was being personally directed by President Bush when, as White House counsel, Gonzales made a much-discussed late-night visit in 2004 to the hospital room of then Attorney General John Ashcroft, in order to get Ashcroft to certify that the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program was legal.
During Congressional testimony last year, Gonzales repeatedly refused to answer persistent questioning from Sen. Chuck Schumer as to whether the president, or Vice President Cheney, had directed him to seek out Ashcroft in the hospital.
Cheney himself told CNN’s Larry King shortly afterward: “I don’t recall that I gave instructions to that effect.”
It’s an important question, because its answer would shed light on the extraordinary lengths to which the president was willing to go to see the wiretap program reauthorized. At the time of the hospital-room meeting, Ashcroft, in Waas’s words, “had been in intensive care for six days, was heavily medicated, and was recovering from emergency surgery to remove his gall bladder.”
Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey has said that he believes that Gonzales and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who accompanied Gonzales to Ashcroft’s hospital room, were trying to take advantage of Ashcroft’s grievously ill state–pressing him to sign the certification possibly without even comprehending what he was doing–and in the process authorize a government surveillance program which both Ashcroft and the Justice Department had concluded was of questionable legality.
Gonzales’ claim has come to light as part of an investigation being conducted by the Inspector General for the Department of Justice into whether Gonzales lied to Congress. In a separate story posted today, Waas reports that DOJ investigators are also looking into whether Gonzales created a set of fictitious notes to provide a rationale for the president’s reauthorization of the program.
Gonzales had claimed during his testimony that at a 2004 meeting just prior to the Ashcroft hospital visit, Congressional leaders had given their support to the program. Four of those leaders have since denied that. President Bush had cited Gonzales’ notes of the Congressional meeting as a rationale for reauthorizing the program. But the notes weren’t written until days after the meeting, and after Bush and Gonzales had officially reauthorized the program. Gonzales has told the investigators that Bush personally directed him to write the notes, though it is unclear when. Investigators believe that, depending on when they were written, the notes could be evidence of an effort to provide a post-hoc justification for the reauthorization of the program.
Update: Evidence of Bush’s involvement in Gonzales visit to Ashcroft’s hospital room was previously reported by Barton Gellman, who wrote in his recent book, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency: “The phone rang at Ashcroft’s bedside. Bush told his ailing cabinet chief that Alberto Gonzales and Andy Card were on their way.” It had not been known, however, that Gonzales has told DOJ investigators of Bush’s involvement.